Analysis |

Naftali Bennett Still Hasn’t Decided What Kind of Prime Minister He Wants to Be

As much as he can blame erstwhile lawmakers, most of the responsibility for Bennett’s situation is his own – he’s had enough time to get used to his unique predicament, and yet he still can’t come to terms with reality

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Israeli Knesset in May.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Israeli Knesset in May. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

After Naftali Bennett gets up in the morning in his mini-fortress of a home in Ra’anana, he is whisked by a ten-car motorcade to one of the prime minister’s offices in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. On the way, he reads the prime minister’s personal intelligence briefing, and when he gets to work he’ll be briefed in further detail by the security chiefs. Then he gets down to the much less pleasant part of his day: finding out what the other ministers and party leaders have been doing without telling him, and putting out the fires others have lit.

When it’s not his cabinet colleagues who are causing strife, it's the latest series of vicious attacks from the Netanyahu media machine that draw his responses. He gets home late to a silent house, but before he goes to sleep, he needs to make sure that another member of his tiny party is not planning to announce their defection the next morning, bringing the precarious coalition down with them.

Bennett sits in the same office as every Israeli prime minister of the past fifty years, since the squat office block in Givat Ram was completed in 1962, but he has less power than any of the men and one woman who sat there before him. Bennett is, as the British politician Norman Lamont once said of the government he had just resigned from, “in office but not in power.”

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Lamont’s sharp quip referred to John Major’s Conservative government that had been re-elected a year earlier and still held a majority in parliament. He was lamenting how its policy was being driven by “the pollsters and the party managers,” and that there was “too much reacting to events, and not enough shaping of events.” Bennett’s situation is far worse. His weakness in office is not a bug of his government, it’s the main feature.

There is nothing he can do to change the situation. He became prime minister due to a bizarre set of electoral circumstances. Seven other parties agreed to support him, the leader of what was then a party with a mere seven Knesset seats, as prime minister, if he joined them to form the elusive majority which would finally end Benjamin Netanyahu’s prolonged hold on power and the never-ending cycle of stalemated elections. Bennett’s weak premiership is built-in. He can never be more than the first among equals, and not always even that. He serves at the pleasure of his coalition partners.

Looking back at the 11 months of this government, it’s surprising that this realization only now seems to be sinking into Bennett’s consciousness. He spent much of those months running Israel’s COVID policy, cutting a swathe on the international scene (where his foreign counterparts who were delighted at not having to deal with Netanyahu anymore helped fuel delusions of power) and tussling with Defense Minister Benny Gantz over who controls the security establishment. In hindsight, he would have done better to have taken advantage of his team of already powerful and independently minded ministers and delegate more, while spending more time on the frustrating but necessary work of political maintenance – within his own party and between the coalition partners.

The defection of Yamina member Idit Silman last month, which left the coalition without its majority, brought Bennett back to earth. For the first time, he went on parliamentary maneuvers. The previous Yamina defector, Amichai Chikli, who had refused to support the government from the start, was officially declared a deserter, meaning that Chikli cannot join another party and his only chance of being in the next Knesset is forming a party of his own and crossing the electoral threshold, which is highly unlikely. Silman is now deterred from voting against the government, lest she suffer the same punishment.

Other wavering Yamina lawmakers have been dealt with. Nir Orbach was placated with the announcement of 4,000 new homes in West Bank settlements and the final act, so far, was the resignation of Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana on Friday, who under the terms of the “Norwegian Law,” now returns to the Knesset, ousting Yomtob Kalfon. Bennett had Kalfon down as a potential defector, while Kahana served together with him in the same Sayeret Matkal team 32 years ago. Kahana is so loyal that he’s prepared to demote himself from the cabinet back to the backbenches in order to help out his old comrade. If Yamina’s was made up of more Kahanas, Bennett would have a much easier life.

But as much as he can blame erstwhile MKs, most of the responsibility for Bennett’s situation is his own. He’s had enough time to get used to his unique predicament, and yet he still can’t come to terms with reality. He no longer has a political base and no matter how successful he is now as prime minister, he won’t rebuild a base in the foreseeable future.

He knows that and often admits as much when he recalls how he told his children, on the day before he announced he was ending talks with Netanyahu on forming a right-wing government and trying to build a new wide-based coalition, that “your father is about to become the most reviled person in Israel.”

Bennett understands that by forming a coalition with left-wing and Islamist parties, many on the right will never forgive him. He also knows that by ending Netanyahu’s reign, he has earned his eternal enmity and that of his diehard followers. He is also fully aware that the gratitude and sympathy he has earned for doing so among centrists and left-wingers won’t be enough to make them vote for a right-winger. At times he acknowledges this, when he talks, as he did at the start of the cabinet meeting on Sunday, about how “after years of neglect Israel is once again being [properly] managed,” and that “we must not slide back into a regime of endless elections and paralysis.”

He knows that the price for that is accepting his circumscribed position and sacrificing future ambitions. It means being a prime minister who accepts his limitations and tries to strengthen parliamentary stability. Not a politician whose attention span only includes yesterday’s polls and the next elections. He doesn’t seem capable of making up his mind on what kind of a prime minister he needs to be.

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